The Netflix original Unorthodox has stormed the world. If my Facebook feed is not Coronavirus memes, silly games, or dopey pictures of cats, it’s friends of mine discussing this show.
I’m not one for peer pressure or just doing what everyone else is doing… but I couldn’t stop my curiosity, and the subject matter is super important to me. Plus, it looked really interesting… and it’s not like the bars and clubs are open anyway…
Unorthodox: My Two Cents
So, my two cents about this epic show. And of course, *spoiler alert*.
First of all, I want to say two things I loved about Unorthodox: The acting and the accurate portrayal.
The acting on the show was nothing short of fantastic. All actors did a remarkable job, and it’s impossible to ignore the masterful performance of the show’s star, Shira Haas. Is the character happy or sad? Excited or terrified? Life is complicated, but usually television is not. The complexity of her emotions throughout the show was shining out of every pore on her face.
Was she thrilled at the prospect of marrying someone brand new in her life? Or having her head shaved? Or starting over in an unfamiliar country? Was she scared? Nervous? Hesitant? Fulfilled?
She was all of these things! Intense emotions were pouring forth all throughout the show, and they were all there for the viewer to experience. You felt the inner struggle. You were a part of the pain, the joy, the complexity.
Is Unorthodox Shameful?
Before I go forward, I want to address common complaints about Unorthodox (based on the book Unorthodox, by Deborah Feldman). It seems like, for the most part, I can figure out who will like the show before they even open their mouths. Anyone who is sensitive to the public disparagement of portions of the Orthodox Jewish world sees the show as an embarrassment. It’s falsely shaming our brethren and inaccurately portraying an entire community.
I doubt their ability to look past their concerns and just see the art. To just enjoy the quality of performance.
And I also disagree. On multiple levels.
Yes, an unknowing viewer would likely now have a very negative view of the Chassidic Jewish world, and Satmar in particular. But I had been inundated with similar viewpoints by Orthodox Jews I met, long before I ever had any firsthand look at that world (and to learn even more about the experience). We tell each other because we see problems. How can we expect one another to know, but to keep the world in the dark forever?
One aspect of the show and the community I would like to talk about, something I thought about from start to finish, is “buy-in”. What I mean is, it’s a society of people who have accepted the world they are living in. True, their exposure to the world outside their own is extremely limited. Nevertheless, on a day-to-day basis they commit to their lifestyle and community. And, it would seem, they are not unhappy with their lives.
The problem is when someone cannot fully buy-in to everyone and everything around them. They cannot fully commit to practices and beliefs that are no longer meaningful and special to them. And then they are faced with a challenge none of us would ever want in our lives. Do we suppress our nature in order to continue to be a part of the only world we know? Do we risk losing all ties to our childhood community or our beloved family? Or do we give it all up in order to get a taste of the mysterious world that lays just outside our four walls?
And I think Unorthodox portrayed all of this superbly. The ambivalence of emotions. The inevitable loneliness. The pull toward those who have since rejected you for abandoning them and everything they stand for.
The Satmar Community
I harbor no ill-will toward Satmar people or lifestyles. If you love what you do and the people in your community, who am I to ever judge or criticize those who hold beliefs different from my own?
As far as I’m concerned, freedom of religion ends when you deliberately hurt me or others. And yes, the characters in Unorthodox were woefully undereducated. Their ability to survive in the world outside the bubble in which they grew was limited. And our protagonist was certainly suffering living the only life she knew how to live.
But what about everyone around her? Are we to assume they are unhappy? Are we to assume deep down just about everyone wishes to “escape” the misery that has been thrust upon them from birth? And are we also to assume that those who facilitated Esty’s life had only ill intentions?
Unorthodox and the Holocaust
In fact, one of my favorite parts of the show was how they presented the philosophies of Satmar Chassidim as being almost an inevitable outcome of the Holocaust. We must preserve our community and dedicate our lives to replenishing those who have been brutally stolen from us. How? By any means necessary.
And any thinking person can’t avoid the question: Are they wrong? The Jewish people left to their own devices could disappear in just a couple of generations. It will not be the fault of a murderous despot. No, it would be the fault of apathy. It would be because people decided to just blend in with the world around them, and even though the attrition process would be slow, it would be inevitable as well.
I don’t agree with the philosophy. I think it is very easy to get trapped in a mindset that to this day we are still in a spiritual battle against Hitler. This is not a healthy way to live life. In fact, it’s not a healthy way to do anything. We should live our lives, not simply avoid death. Life is not a battle. It’s an adventure!
Should You Watch Unorthodox?
Unorthodox was an unusually well-done show. The acting was remarkable. The costumes and set designs were flawless. And the intensity was off the charts. I can still feel chills thinking about some of the scenes.
Was it perfect? Nothing ever is. Were there biases and inaccuracies in how the Satmar community was portrayed? For certain. Probably way more than I will ever even realize. Nevertheless, I think Unorthodox is very much worth watching, both from an artistic standpoint and to feel the anguish of one woman’s painful story. You will experience a wide gamut of emotions along the way. And you should!
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